About Me

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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Saturday, 29 September 2012

Trench Art but not Trench Art

I recently acquired from my (very) friendly local antiques dealer this curious object, which looked immediately like a piece of First World War trench art. All the parts were there – the brass cylinder shape of the shell, the rim round the base, with what appeared to be notches milled by hand, and most of all the lid made from a penny with the head of King George V, which opened to reveal the date 1915. But why was the penny so worn? Why did the decorative crest not have any apparent military reference? And what would the patent numbers on the base reveal?


USA patent 2146896 can be found easily on http://www.google.com/patents?id=RH5DAAAAEBAJ&pg=PA1&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=1#v=onepage&q&f=false The patent for the Gas Burner Igniter was issued to J H G Horstmann on 14 February 1939, for a hand-held tool to light a gas fire or cooker, with a brass casing at the base to hold a battery which gives a charge to ignite gas fed in through a nozzle. John Hermann Gustav Horstmann was one of the family of Horstmanns whose engineering company based in Bath developed from a clock-making business in the mid-nineteenth century into a major engineering concern producing cars, gas-flow controllers and central heating systems.

So, not First World War trench art, and a clear explanation for the worn condition of the penny. But then, more intriguing, why such a strong visual reference to trench art? Could this be Second World War trench art, with a knowing reference to the earlier conflict in the selection of a 1915 penny? But what of the crest, not as far as I have been able to find out, having any military reference? All rather mystifying, unless it is thought of as an example of how trench art became embraced within the general culture of folk-art, with skills acquired during the First World War being maintained and practised until after the Second World War, in much the same way that new words and words shared between classes of people in the First World War became common usage, and were adapted, retained or abandoned during and after the Second World War.

Monday, 17 September 2012

How to cure a nose bleed, 1639

I have never been sure how to stop a nose bleed. Pinch the nose? Let it bleed? Hold ice in the mouth? Set the head back or forward? Should the head be set between the knees, or is that to do with being sick, or giving birth? A moment's doubt throws all into doubt. I came across this comforting remedy, or course of treatment, while researching for How To Cure The Plague, to be published next year.

'Of Bleeding at the Nose' 

from Philip Barrough's The Method of Physick, 1639 

Let the patient speak little, and let him eschue moving, trouble of mind, and chiefly anger. Also it is good to have the lower parts of the head highest. For the cure, you must take heed that in bleeding at the nose, the lower parts lie highest, and the head downward. The cure must be begun with those remedies which turn the bloud to other parts of the body. First therefore if the body be full, and age will suffer it, and if the sick be not resolved, you must cut the veins on the arme, right against the flowing of the bloud at the nose.

Moreover, friction and rubbing of the inferior parts, as the armes, hands, thighs, share [groin], and feet is very profitable; and it is marvellously good to put the feet into warme water, ever rubbing them up and down.

Barrough’s recommended treatment for a nose bleed becomes a whole-body experience involving cupping the liver area if the right nostril is bleeding, or the area of the spleen if the left nostril is bleeding; an ointment made from frankincense  and ‘the soft haires of a Hare’ is applied to the nose, the ears are stopped ‘strongly with linen and wax’, and the patient should ‘hold in the mouth cold raine water’. For good measure ‘the flesh of Snayles brayed with vinegar, or their shells burnt and brayed’ [crushed] are good, and should be applied to the forehead as a paste, with vinegar.

If the bleeding has not stopped by then, and the patient is still within the grasp of whoever is treating him or her, a kind of homeopathic treatment is to be deployed, for ‘above all the bloud which commeth out of the patient’s nose is good, if it be burned in an earthen pot, and then beaten; take of it three drams, of Bolearmoniak one scruple, of camphor one scruple, with the white of an egg and a little vinegar, make it thick like hony, and lay it to the forehead, and put it into the nose.’

Often the last remedy in a list is so bizarre that its power probably lies in frightening the patient into convincing him or herself and everyone else in the room that recovery has been effected, that the nose bleed has indeed stopped, even though there may be fountains of blood springing from the nostrils. ‘Necessity requiring it, it is lawfull to put [in] two grains or three of Opium; Asses dung dried and made into a powder is wonderfully good, and also hogs dung hath the like property.’

Friday, 7 September 2012

On the Kindle

I promised that when I got a Kindle the first book I read would be Anna Karenina, then Middlemarch, and then maybe The Brothers Karamazov. Maybe this was ambitious, and I wasn’t in any case sure how I would feel about using a Kindle. While trying to keep an open mind, I have always appreciated books and felt them to be amongst the most important human achievements. My books tell me who I am; by looking at their spines I understand what I have learned. So I had several reservations. Would the texts purchased and embarked on disappear with out warning?  How would I manage my non-fiction reading habits, would I be able to put in notes, mark passages with symbols that I would understand as ‘good’ or ‘not so good’, or ‘awful’. I didn’t know how easily I would be able refer to passages one or two pages back without recognising the shape of the paragraph or certain key words.

I still don’t know how it works with non-fiction, but I have read 17% of Anna Karenina (which itself is a new way of looking at my progress through a book). This is in two weeks, including a few days reading a translation I didn’t like, and searching through the list for a better one. This is a major advantage of reading out-of-copyright literature in translation – a number of samples can be made before commitment. I very much enjoy being able to set the font to a size that does not strain my eyes, without feeling that I am becoming decrepit.

But most of all I enjoy the design and the feel of the thing. I have long considered the thingness of books: their size, weight, smell, feel, whether the presentation conveys ideas of power, importance, popularity, ease, false humility. The thingness of the Kindle is unavoidable: the softness of the leather cover (yes, I know that alone cost more than I have paid for most books I have bought), the gentleness of the page-turning button’s click, the silk finish of the surface of the machine. But the introduction to the machine comes as a letter which includes this:

‘Our top design objective was for Kindle to disappear in your hands – to get out of the way – so you can enjoy your reading. We hope you’ll quickly forget you’re reading on an advanced wireless device and instead be transported into that mental realm readers love, where the outside world dissolves, leaving only the author’s stories, words and ideas.’

Few texts could be as disingenuous. The point of a Kindle is that it is primarily designed for the reader in a world which does not disappear, where you can quickly step aside and back again at the click of a button, without the business of finding your place, finding a place to put your bookmark, adjusting your eyes to Times New Roman point 12. You know you are reading a Kindle – not ‘reading on’ a Kindle. For years I’ve read books, understanding by that word both the text and the thing; should I now begin the separation between message and medium?

And the idea that the Kindle should disappear in my hands; I see the intention, that it should be designed to the point of minimum intrusion, but it is too well designed. It is a pleasure. The cover is weighted so that it gives the feeling of being about 20% of the way through a book – too far to put it down, far enough to know that you are an active participant in the reading process, that you are investing time and work, which will be repaid. The book and cover design works equally well for left or right-handed readers. The screen with no glare and no loss of contrast in sunlight is achieved with the application of science far beyond my comprehension. And the overt discreetness of it, the use of lower-case ‘k’ so that it is presented almost apologetically – those designers knew exactly what level of reluctance they were up against. Maybe the ‘disappearing’ text in the letter is part of that too. The silent fanfare makes forgiving judges of us.